Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney launched their new Main Street Montana Rural Partners initiative in Choteau on Sept. 25, offering support to small towns that have been largely bypassed by recent economic growth in the state.
About 40 people gathered at the Choteau-Teton Public Library to hear Bullock and Cooney speak. They included city and county officials, state legislators and community members who are interested in seeing what the state can offer through this new initiative.
Choteau Mayor Dan Lannen, welcoming the state officials and community members, said Choteau has been working hard in the past three years to find answers to the challenges facing this community of 1,600 people.
The late Mayor Jack Conatser was a big supporter of economic development efforts and with the support of the Choteau City Council, he authorized and appointed the Choteau-Area Port Authority, a five-member board of volunteers who are working to lead and assist economic development efforts.
“Anything we can gain from this will be fantastic for our city,” Lannen said of the new initiative, adding that the CAPA and the community know they need to look outside of the box and they are working on finding sustainable answers.
City Councilman Steve Dogiakos, who also serves on the CAPA board, said Choteau’s economic development activities started in 2015 with an ad hoc group of citizens who started to identify shortcomings in the economy and pinpoint potential solutions.
Organizations that have been involved in this effort include the Choteau Chamber of Commerce, the Teton County Development Corp. and the city of Choteau, which created the CAPA and the new Tourism Business Improvement District.
Since citizens started working in 2015, he said their efforts have yielded nearly $100,000 in economic development grants for the Choteau area.
Those grants include a $22,000 grant to help create the website, www.visitchoteau.com — which gives visitors everything they need to know to plan an afternoon stop or a week-long backcountry vacation out of Choteau.
Another $10,000 grant from the Montana, Wyoming and Idaho Economic Developers Association helped Choteau qualify for and fund an in-depth community assessment through the Montana Economic Developers Association.
“From that assessment, we have identified a dozen key projects to stimulate Choteau’s economy, ranging from public works projects, led by Choteau’s Public Works Director Mike Maples, to community enhancement projects like revitalizing our very own Choteau-Teton Public Library as a technology and community hub over the next couple of years,” Dogiakos said.
Dogiakos also announced that the CAPA, with Montana Cooperative Development Center and pledges from ski enthusiasts all over the region, has been awarded a $66,000 grant from USDA Rural Development to do a feasibility study for the Teton Pass Ski Area — a document that may help get the ski area, closed last winter, open again under a different ownership structure.
Governor Bullock said that while Montana’s urban counties are mostly doing well economically, the rural areas of the state are still facing challenges.
Montana’s household income is growing faster than any state in the country and Montana leads the nation in growth of the middle class, he said, but in rural areas the economy is still lagging.
Main Street Montana — Rural Partners is the second phase of Bullock’s Main Street Montana project that launched five years ago and brought diverse major business leaders across the state together to build a blueprint of economic progress for Montana.
This project involved a 56-county survey and engaged 4,000 Montanans to develop goals, objectives and tasks. Out of those projects, 300 recommendations for business development were received and nearly 80 percent of those have been completed or are in progress, Bullock said.
Some of those changes include repealing and streamlining rules, expanding business access to apprenticeship programs and an annual Innovate Montana symposium.
Economic measurements are now showing that the state had the nation’s fastest median household income growth in 2016-17 and saw the largest growth in the middle class of any state from 2013-16. Unemployment at 3.6 percent is the lowest it has been in a decade, Bullock said.
“By so many metrics, things are going pretty darn well in our state,” he said, but added, “We all have an obligation to ensure that rural counties and Indian country aren’t being left behind as the state sees growth.”
The Rural Partners project aims to help Montana’s rural counties and tribal governments find their path to prosperity too. “As a state we don’t want to leave any community behind because if they are, the whole state will eventually be left behind,” Bullock said. “The next phase of the Main Street Montana project will focus on empowering small towns in Montana to get ahead and stay ahead.”
Cooney said that there is no direct funding associated with the Rural Partners initiative, but the state has hired Elisa Fiaschetti as the new rural community development manager in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
She will serve as a liaison between small communities and the government programs that can help them. “As we learn from Choteau today, we know that rural areas of our state are facing challenges and we have a lot of work to do,” Cooney said. “When Montanans work together we can accomplish great things.”
The principles of the initiative are to support rural and tribal communities; build the capacity of rural communities so they can attract new investments, residents and jobs; strengthen opportunities in rural communities, especially for young adults; and diversify rural economies to improve community resilience.
“We’ll learn from communities like Choteau that have come together to make real progress toward an economically prosperous future,” Cooney said. “What is most important is that we will not replace or repeat local efforts. … We are not here to tell our rural communities what the solution is, we are here to assist.”
The next step in the roll-out of this initiative is for Cooney to meet with the first five or six communities (including Choteau) selected as focal points for the program and listen to what their needs are.
Cooney will return to Choteau on Oct. 18 to meet with economic development officials in the City Hall meeting room from 1:30 to 3 p.m. to determine what assistance the state can offer with the projects that have come out of the Choteau MEDA assessment.